Liverpool in the Middle Ages
The great city of Liverpool began as a tidal pool next to the Mersey. It was probably called the lifer pol meaning muddy pool. There may have been a hamlet at Liverpool before the town was founded in the 13th century. It is not mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086) but it may have been to small to merit a mention of its own. King John founded the port of Liverpool in 1207. The English had recently conquered Ireland and John needed another port to send men and supplies across the Irish Sea. John started a weekly market by the pool. In those days there were very few shops so if you wanted to buy or sell goods you had to go to a market. Once a market was up and running at Liverpool craftsmen and tradesmen would come to live in the area. As well as a weekly market the king gave the citizens of Liverpool the right to hold an annual fair. In the Middle Ages a fair was like a market but it was held only once a year for a period of a few days. A Liverpool fair would attract buyers and sellers from all over northwest England.
King John divided the land at Liverpool into plots called burgages on which people could build houses. He invited people to come and live in Liverpool. Then in 1229 the king granted the people of Liverpool another charter. This time he gave the merchants of Liverpool the right to form themselves into an organisation called a guild to protect their interests. In many medieval towns the Merchant’s Guild also ran the town. In Liverpool the guildsmen elected an official called the Reeve to run the town on a day-to-day basis. The first mention of a Mayor of Liverpool was in 1351.
However Medieval Liverpool would seem tiny to us. Even by the standards of the time it was a small town. In the 14th century Liverpool probably had a population of about 1,000. It was not more than 1200. Many of the people of Liverpool lived at partly by farming. Others were fishermen. Some were craftsmen or tradesmen such as brewers, butchers, blacksmithsand carpenters. Furthermore a little stream ran into the pool and it powered a watermill that ground grain into flour for the townspeople’s bread. There was also a windmill Southeast of the pool.
In the Middle Ages some wine from France was imported through Liverpool but its main trading partner was Ireland. Skins and hides were imported from Ireland. Iron and wool were exported from Liverpool. Despite its small size Liverpool sent 2 MPs to Parliament in 1295. Curiously Liverpool did not have its own parish church, only a chapel. (A chapel was a kind of ‘daughter’ church dependent on a parish church nearby). The first chapel in Liverpool was the Chapel of St Mary. By the middle of the 14th century there was also the chapel of Our Lady and St Nicholas. St Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, which was obviously appropriate to a port like Liverpool. By 1235 there was a castle at Liverpool.
Liverpool in the 16th and 17th Century
In the 16th century Ireland was still Liverpool’s main trading partner. In 1540 a writer said: ‘Irish merchants come much hither as to a good harbour‘. He also said there was ‘good merchandise at Liverpool and much Irish yarn, that Manchester men buy there’. Skins and hides were still imported from Ireland. Exports from Liverpool at that time included coal, woollen cloth, knives and leather goods. There were still many fishermen in Liverpool. The port also benefited when English troops were transported to Ireland to put down rebellions in the 16th and early 17th centuries. The troops spent money in the town.
Liverpool was growing at this time but it still had a population of only 2,000 in 1600. The population of Liverpool probably reached 2,500 by the time of the civil war in 1642. Like all towns at that time Liverpool suffered from outbreaks of the plague. There were severe outbreaks in 1558 and 1609, 1647 and 1650.
Meanwhile in 1515 a grammar school was founded in Liverpool.
In 1642 the civil war between king and parliament began. At first Liverpool was in royalist hands but in May 1643 Parliamentarian soldiers took the town. They dug ditches and erected earth ramparts around Liverpool to defend it from royalist attack. In June 1644 Prince Rupert led a royalist army to try and re-capture Liverpool. He described the town as a ‘mere crows nest which a parcel of boys could take’. At first attacks were repulsed but then the Parliamentary troops left by sea leaving the people of Liverpool to defend their town themselves. The royalists attacked Liverpool one night. The townspeople resisted fiercely but were overcome. Many of them were killed. The royalist troops then sacked Liverpool. However Liverpool only remained in royalist hands for a matter of weeks. In the summer of 1644 the royalists lost the battle of Marston Moor. Following the battle they lost the whole of the North of England, including Liverpool.
Liverpool began to grow rapidly in the late 17th century with the growth of English colonies in North America and the West Indies. Liverpool was, obviously, well placed to trade with colonies across the Atlantic. The town boomed. In 1673 a New Town Hall was built on pillars. Underneath them was an exchange where merchants could buy and sell goods. At the end of the 17th century a writer named Celia Fiennes visited Liverpool and gave it a glowing report. She said: ‘Liverpool is built on the river Mersey. It is mostly newly built, of brick and stone after the London fashion. The original (town) was a few fishermen’s houses. It has now grown into a large, fine town. It is but one parish with one church though there be 24 streets in it, there is indeed a little chapel and there are a great many dissenters in the town (Protestants who did not belong to the Church of England). It’s a very rich trading town, the houses are of brick and stone, built high and even so that a street looks very handsome. The streets are well paved. There is an abundance of persons who are well dressed and fashionable. The streets are fair and long. Its London in miniature as much as I ever saw anything. There is a very pretty exchange. It stands on 8 pillars, over which is a very handsome Town Hall.’ She also said: ‘The town of Prescot stands on a high hill. It is a very pretty, neat town with a large market place and well paved, broad streets.’
In 1684 almshouses were built in Dale Street. They were followed in 1692 by almshouses in Shaws Brow. In 1699 Liverpool was finally made a parish of its own. The first parish church was St Peters, which was built in 1704. Meanwhile in 1660-78 parts of the castle were demolished. The rest was demolished early in the 18th century.